Everyone loves a good story. They can be powerful, illuminating, inspiring, and, most of all, memorable. And they can really enhance the effectiveness of a sermon. No doubt some of our favorite sermons are so precisely because of their illustrations or stories.
History bears out this observation. Not only was Jesus himself the master storyteller (and illustrator), but some of the most famous sermons in history have contained them. One only needs to think of Jonathan Edwards’s sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Edwards effectively compared the precarious situation of sinners dangling over the fires of hell to the way spiders dangle by the thinnest of webs.
But illustrations do not always turn out the way we intended. Indeed, sometimes illustrations can do more harm than good. Here are five major illustration pitfalls to avoid.
1. Offering an illustration too soon.
When it comes to illustrations, perhaps the number one mistake is offering one before the exegetical or theological point has really been explained or adequately developed. Remember, illustrations are designed to illuminate something else. But they are unable to do so if the something else has never been sufficiently explored.
Too many pastors use illustrations as a substitute for exegesis, rather than as something that illumines or applies their exegesis.
In short, don’t jump the gun. You may have a zinger of an illustration waiting in the wings, but hold onto it until you have made a point worth illustrating.
2. Offering illustrations too often.
Since we know that illustrations can be powerful, we might conclude that more is always better. But some sermons run the danger of being over-illustrated. A new story or illustration every three or four minutes can actually dilute the entire enterprise. Illustrations are necessary and helpful, but use them sparingly. Fewer and more meaningful illustrations can have a deeper effect than numerous and less meaningful ones.
Charles Spurgeon, the master illustrator, said that a sermon without illustrations is like a house without windows. But, he adds, you don’t want a house that is only windows!
3. Offering only one kind of illustration
In many pulpits today, the standard type of illustration is a story. There is certainly nothing wrong with this option. Jesus told many stories, and they can be quite effective. But stories are not the only kind of illustration. Jesus also used analogies or what one might call “word pictures.” These are shorter, and they usually draw upon some well-known fact of life. For example, “The kingdom of God is like a grain of mustard seed” (Matt. 13:31).
The Puritans were masters of this sort of illustration. When seeking to explain how one sin begets more sin, Richard Baxter simply said, “If one thief be in the house, he will let in the rest.” Short, but powerful. And this sort of illustration does not burn the clock like so many stories are apt to do.
4. Offering illustrations from only one type of source.
Where does a pastor get his illustrations? The source of one’s illustration can make or break its effectiveness. You want an illustration that virtually all the congregation can relate to and that fits the tone/mood of the sermon.
Unfortunately, it has become all too common today for preachers to draw illustrations almost exclusively from pop culture—particularly movies and television shows. There is nothing necessarily wrong (in principle) with using such illustrations. But pastors need to be careful if this is the only well from which they are drawing. Not every congregant may be watching that movie or TV show you are citing. Moreover, you want to be careful about whether you really want them to watch certain movies or shows.
Other sources of illustration are available: historical events, news stories, the natural world, and even personal experiences.
In addition, I would suggest that the best source for good illustrations is often overlooked: the Bible itself. Scripture is packed with great stories that are perfect to illustrate virtually any sermon point. Indeed, it was often the practice of biblical writers to illustrate their point with other biblical stories (Hebrews 11 is an excellent example).
5. Offering illustrations that draw attention to themselves.
There is a certain kind of illustration that can take on a life of its own. It may be so provocative, or so over-the-top, it becomes clear that the illustration is designed to take center stage. Instead of serving to illumine something else, the illustration itself becomes the point.
Pastors must be careful of these sorts of illustrations, lest they be remembered and the sermon forgotten. As Spurgeon said, illustrations, like windows, “are meant not so much to be seen as to be seen through.”
In the end, we can affirm the positive role of illustrations. But, if these five pitfalls are avoided, illustrations can be even more effective at doing what they were intended, namely pointing away from themselves and to the glory of Christ.